But, we all know that I like a challenge, and I like not working even more.
Why would anyone do this?
Before we get to the how of doing this, let me first take you back a few weeks to when Graham and I were chatting over our usual Sunday morning coffee in bed, and offering each other words of encouragement to keep us upbeat in our respective jobs. It’s a routine that we have circled time and time again during the last (almost) 3 years in which we have been living in France, but this time something was different. Graham has been working full-time for a French company since the end of summer, and to be honest I have hardly seen him. Despite the fact that we both live and work in the same little French house in Limousin, often the only indicator that we have of the other’s presence throughout the working day is the reliable deterioration of broadband speed if we should dare to use bandwidth at the same time (merci Orange!).
Those of you who follow me on Instagram or Facebook will no doubt know that I had a significant surgery in August which I had been preparing for through the year and that my recovery was longer than expected. Unfortunately, this propelled us into an unanticipated period of very limited financial means, since we depended entirely on my income at the time. But perhaps serendipitously it did give us a taste of what it might be like to live on even less, after all the whole point of my blog has been to share how we live in a frugal yet fulfilling way in France.
So, being the ambitious character that I am (this could also be read as ridiculous, you’d have to ask Graham…) I proposed over that lie-in coffee morning that perhaps we could attempt to cut our monthly budget further, going from 1500€ a month to a 1000€ spending limit for the whole household. My motivation for suggesting this voluntary diminishment of our available funds comes from a number of places.
Primarily, I had started to miss him – which sounds a bit mad considering we see each other every day, but over the course of the last few years we have adjusted to being together for much of the time, and frankly, I had started to resent his employer getting so much of his attention – and not just for me, but for the things that I know that he both wants to and enjoys doing. We are still very much in the throes of our renovation – in no small part due to the fact that we have so little time in which to do it. We seem to accumulate all of the materials when our good intentions peak, and then they sit in storage (or worse, in the room for which they are intended!) for weeks. It can be a little deflating to have a kitchen work surface in your hallway for the entirety of autumn, especially when the one we have been using since we moved in is in such dire condition. So, I proposed to him that if he wanted to leave his job and return to his hobbies, his interests and the work which we are doing on the house, then that I was okay with being the one who worked.
And I am okay with that, in principle, but another layer of this proposal comes from the many deep reflections that I had before and particularly during my medical recovery. Whilst I love my work as a psychotherapist and counsellor, and I have no intention of giving it up, I do want to make more space for the other things that give me great happiness and fulfilment too. Having such a powerful experience and noticing the changes that have been happening to my body as a result of surgery has really brought my focus back from others to myself, and for me, that is a very positive thing indeed.
I am a natural helper and I get a great deal of satisfaction from supporting and listening to others. I also get an enormous amount of fulfilment from my counselling work, but I have to acknowledge that I currently spend a lot of my time longing to do more writing.
I want to spend more time in my garden and be able to easily see friends again (even if this new budget means travel has to be well planned and budgeted for). Thrillingly, I want to make time to be with my parents who – in a very exciting recent development – have found a house in the same village that we live in, and are planning their permanent move from the UK to France over the next few months.
So with those things in mind, we have both agreed that I should cut back the amount of work that I do so as to allow me more time to do the things that I love. You may have recently read in my column for French Property News that December 2021’s issue will be my last, and for me, that’s all part of this very positive grander plan to do less and live more.
So, now I’ve explained the why, I shall have a think about the how – and I’ll be blogging about this challenge over the coming weeks, I do hope that you’ll join me for the ride. À bientôt!
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If you read my writing in French Property News, some of you will already know a little about “offer optimisation” from my December 2020 column – a practice made famous by the US show “Extreme Couponing” – and how I and many French residents use a number of helpful tools and websites to make the most of the deals available. Mostly this is on food and household necessities, and our efforts allow us all to stretch our income a little further.
I think it’s fair to say that food costs more in France than in the UK. I can’t speak for other countries as these are the only two places in which I have been a long term resident, however, I have heard anecdotally from my Instagram and Facebook communities that things here are not considered cheap by comparison. I would caveat that observation, however, with my opinion that the quality of food here in France is great. Even the basics range of items in shops are decent, for example, “Eco+” in e L’eclerc, “Prix malin” in Grand Frais. I’m yet to come across an item which I didn’t think was great value or delicious, whereas I could not necessarily say that of the equivalent UK ranges in Asda or Tesco.
So in this house, we are appreciative of the food which we buy even if it comes at a higher price. But, being who I am and my inherent avoidance of spending money where I needn’t, I have put my much improved French to the test by taking up the challenge of optimising whatever offers there are to be had.
Using voucher and offer-optimisation, the six items in the picture above cost me the grand total of 4,77€ instead of 15,82€. Want to know how I do it? Read on…
The Shopping List
Liebig velouté 5 legumes = 2,87€ Liebig velouté 5 legumes = 2,87€ Domestos gel = 2,24€ Domestos gel = 2,24€ Cif spray 5 en 1 = 2,80€ Cif spray 5 en 1 = 2,80€
This selection should have totalled 15,82€ however with a little research I have been able to stack offers as follows:
Domestos gel-80% on the second purchase (in-store offer) -> -1,79€, then voucher on purchase of 2 products from Ma Vie en Couleurs -> -1,20€ So total for 2 Domestos gel = 2,24€ + 2,24€ – (2,24€ x 0.80) – 1,20€ = 1,49€ -> 0,75€ each
Cif spray 5 en 1-80% on the second purchase (in-store offer)-> -2,24€, then voucher on purchase of 2 products from Ma Vie en Couleurs -> -1,00€ So total for 2 Cif spray 5 en 1 = 2,80€ + 2,80€ – (2,80 x 0.80) – 1,00€ = 2,36€ -> 1,18€ each
I realise these calculations look pretty daunting – so I’ll go through a how-to guide for one of these items from start to finish:
Step One – Do your research
It is possible to find your own offers and work out possible reductions for yourself… or you can do what I do, and allow the website Anti-crise to do the hard work for you. On Anti-crise all of the latest “pub” are collated for you to browse – which is useful in enough itself. However the next level of help available here is how they calculate optimised versions of the various in-store offers – stacking vouchers where possible.
I should warn you, there are lots of products on offer, and it might be tempting to try to optimise it all from the start – I would encourage you not to do this, but to instead choose to optimise just a few things which you need so as to avoid unnecessary spending and get used to the process.
It’s easy to get carried away when things are as cheap as they sometimes work out here (in fact, sometimes the shop pays you to take the item – a so-called “bénéfice”), but if we don’t need something then it’s not really a bargain. The process can also be quite involved and complicated, so to start with, less is more. Now, back to our offer in question…
How to optimise using vouchers in France
Click on Catalogues -> Catalogues Optimisés and choose the shop which you are interested in visiting. Here I choose Casino.
Here, I’m looking for the offer on Domestos gel – I can see it in the list and expand the section to allow me to click the first link which will navigate to the relevant page in the offer leaflet in question.
I highly recommend doing this, as sometimes an offer will be flavour or type-specific, and it’s imperative to select the correct item.
Here I note on a post-it, the in-store offer, the number of items needed and whether the item is of a special type. This one is “100% puissant”. I also note here, that the advertised price is slightly different from the one in my local store. I’m rural and this store is expensive for us, so it’s a little bit higher – but the offer still stands. At this point, if I go into my store and buy 2 of these products, I’ll get the in-store offer of 80% off the second purchase.
Now we know what the in-store offer is, we need to know what the stacked optimisation is that we are carrying out. Going back to the item info (above) in the optimisation list, we can see that we need to click on the voucher website Ma Vie en Couleurs for our optimisation. You can sign up for free using my code D21022 or clicking this link and you will be given the chance to win one of a hundred activities centred in nature, sport, culture, outings and well-being ideas.
Success is all in the preparation
Clicking on the link in Anticrise will bring up an instruction page, as below:
This page tells us that we need to print the voucher, the date it’s valid until and how many products the voucher works on. If you don’t have an account with Ma Vie en Couleurs you can create one freely and easily using my link. Once you’re logged in, navigate through the available vouchers until you find the relevant Domestos offer.
Printing your vouchers
Now, print your voucher. I recommend printing to a pdf and saving this on your desktop for later physical printing. This is because each voucher can only be printed once, so if there’s a problem with your printer, you run out of ink or paper etc, then that’s you’re one chance gone. For safety, print to PDF and print on paper later.
Now the fun part, shopping!
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be organised before heading out – having your printed, prepared voucher, followed by whatever information you might need to ensure you get the right product is imperative.
One of the ways I keep organised with my various vouchers and receipts is to use a pocket folder below. I take it with me to the shop and it contains all the information I need for successful optimisation. It’s also a great place to store receipts for later when I need to upload them to an app or site for reimbursement, and I can keep any vouchers which I pick up along the way (or are sent to me) for later use.
I find that taking a post-it with information on the product I’m expecting to find attached to the voucher in question helps me to be accurate, and I can also challenge any errors at the till if something goes awry.
Paying for your items
When paying for my items I tend to choose to do a limited number of optimisations at a time.
I do this because it is more likely that that cashier will be able to work through them without finding the process offputting, that it is less hassle for both of us, and that if I don’t push my luck, the cashier may be less likely to question the almost universal rule of not allowing customers to stack optimisations (it is usual that shops do not permit the use of vouchers when an item is on special offer).
So, I go into the process with good humour, and if the item isn’t available at the optimised price then I can decide to take it or leave it. Please don’t allow yourself to become frustrated with the cashier if they refuse your voucher – they are only doing their job.
I will generally group my items together at the till, and lay the relevant voucher on top of the item so that the cashier doesn’t miss it, but can quickly confirm that I have bought the corresponding product. This tends to make the process easier for everyone, and I would avoid just handing a bunch of printed vouchers to the cashier with your payment, they need to know that you have picked up the right item so as to process it. Also, it’s sensible to have an idea of what the total should be in your head so that you can query your shopping bill if needs be, and if anything goes wrong do go to customer services to resolve it.
My essentials for success
Don’t forget to choose the correct catalogue for the date of your visit, offers change frequently
Remember – shops are not obligated to honour the voucher if there is another offer in place – many shops have a policy that a voucher cannot be accumulated with an item that is also part of an in-store promotion – if the cashier refuses then they are just doing their job. You can choose to buy it at the original price, or leave the item there and then.
Make sure you select the correct flavour/scent/version.
Voucher optimisation generally only works in-store. Drive and online shopping rarely accept vouchers, however, you can use sites like Shopmium and Coupon Network to claim cashback on your purchases (as I did on the Liebig soups in my first picture). I’ll be creating a new blog about this process soon. In the meantime, you can use my referral links to get started with your account on both of these apps:
Building our potager beds for very little money was something which had been on my French garden to-do list for months.
Our vegetable plot has been through several thought processes and incarnations – but first, we chose a sunny spot in the garden. It’s important that the beds will get enough light to be productive. Exactly how much you will need will depend upon what you want to put in there, but we chose to put three 4m x 2.5m beds of exposed earth with no edging up at the top left-hand side of the garden next to the fence closest to our neighbours.
Build a cheap potager in France: Preparing the ground
Digging out the turf which was in place and exposing the ground underneath was a hard job. We removed it by hand with a spade and turned it over to allow the grass to die off. We didn’t have compost bins at the time so this was a space and (somewhat) labour saving method – but it did mean that the ground was not usable for planting for several weeks longer as the roots of the grass (and more problematically for us, moss) decayed.
However, after those weeks of waiting, we were delighted to find that the soil underneath was of good loamy quality. We then used the electronic tiller – that we had picked up on Gumtree while in the UK for the princely sum of £10 – to break down the larger clods of earth and give us a smoother growing medium.
Once the beds were made they were great, they looked neat. But of course, over time the garden grew and the grass and weeds on the edging persistently made their way back into our hard-won soil. We came to the realisation that we would not be able to keep the potager as we had imagined with the time we have available to maintain it. We needed to create some kind of delineation between grass and vegetables to help us out.
What material to build with
There are lots of materials which can be used for the construction – a typical method in our old UK lives was to build our beds from the abundant and free resource of wooden pallets (choosing ones which were not treated with harmful chemicals which could bleed into the soil).
We built almost everything in our old garden from pallets, Graham even replaced our decked garden steps with them when we were trying to save money in the last year of living in Bristol. Incidentally, they looked great and were even stronger than those which had been there before!.
Unfortunately, this was not to be the case for us in France – pallets have a monetary value here and are not given away freely in the area of Limousin in which I live. Perhaps in more industrialised areas, they may be more available – if they are please feel free to comment below and let us know where, as I’m sure others will be interested.
So this pushed my brain into gear to try to solve the problem, initially without spending any money at all, while also creating something aesthetically pleasing.
Version two of the potager meant bringing down some old leftover planks of wood from the top of the woodshed (grange) and arranging them around the edge of the beds to create some separation. They worked. The grass’ encroachment on my beloved potatoes was impeded, and for a while I felt more comfortable with them.
Expansion and improvement
I mentioned the potatoes which I had planted earlier this year – we grow them every year as they are a staple of our diet and we appreciate good quality produce where possible. This year I bought a large 3kg bag of the Bintje variety seed potatoes from E.Leclerc for less than 10€. Great value, but when planting them all they completely filled our three existing beds (and to be honest, I overfilled them and had more for pots) so we needed more space.
I learned that covering the turf with a light occluding medium weakened that hard to remove moss and turf, so marked out and blocked off the light for another two beds of the same size to give us more space for other projects – however, that of course meant that more edging was required.
I had used all of the wood from the grange, and also on my thrice-daily visits to the top of the garden feeding and tending the chickens, I had fallen out of love with potager version two. With the harsh weather, some of the planks had shifted out of place, and the lack of a uniform look had clearly been noted by our neighbours who since version one had planted some small laurel trees next to their hedge. Clearly they were keen to hide the undeniable ugliness of our potager.
For me, frugality means spending our money where we get the best value for it, so with this laundry list of dislikes and our neighbours’ obvious discomfort, we decided that this project warranted a small spend, both financially and of physical effort.
Very British problem solving
My automatic (and perhaps very British) response to the problem was to consider sleepers as a solid and easy to install edging (note, not railway sleepers due to the chemicals which they can be treated with) but as I researched this route I discovered that to edge our five large beds would cost over 1600€! To my mind, I’d rather just buy my potatoes from Carrefour for that price.
So we dove into Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration on how we might create an affordable version of this typical British allotment look – and found that even buying pre-made potager edging was going to be more than we were willing to spend.
Instead, we readied ourselves to put our building abilities to the test and hit the Castorama website with aplomb. Drawing out the plans and figuring out how we might construct the beds with the materials available to us (our rural store, while large, does not carry all of the ranges listed online, nor indeed deliver) was a fun task and drew out my inner-engineer.
We ordered the materials which we thought would work for us – rounded half lengths of treated wood for the edges and sharpened posts (piquets) for the corners and strengthening – as well as small metal brackets to tether the lengths together and A LOT of woodscrews!
I was pleasantly surprised to find that collecting the materials via the Castorama click-and-collect service could not have been easier – being the first time we had used it, we were a little unsure how things worked, but it was all very self-explanatory when we arrived with our trailer and a receipt for our order.
Building a cheap potager bed
Building the beds was a pretty physical job. I am usually a pretty sedentary person. My work involves sitting at a desk in every incarnation of how I earn a living. Since walking Margot hasn’t yet brought me the peak physical fitness that I had envisaged (!!), there was a lot of stiffness involved in this two-day task!
Firstly we cut the straight lengths to size and then connected together with the ones which needed further length with small metal brackets. I laid them out next to the place which they would sit when constructed, and we brought together what felt like a kit for each bed, putting aside the screws and cut posts which we attached to the lengths so that we could knock them into the ground with a mallet.
Eventually, with a great deal of teamwork and balancing wood, we managed to layer-by-layer create the beds and screw the lengths into the posts. Bed-by-bed we could see the potager coming together, and much as we had hoped to complete the task in a single day, we took a brief break when our neighbours’ little girl came over with some homemade bell-shaped biscuits to fuel us in our task.
After a few restful moments on the bench, we conceded that version three of the potager would take longer than the light we had left in the day, and so we resolved to come back afresh the next morning.
The finished product
And – very unlike us – we actually did finish it! Usually, a working day or social commitment will mean that we might have to get back to a task when we have the chance, but pleasingly we were able to finish our construction in a few hours on day two and step back in the sun to admire our handiwork.
We are incredibly pleased with how they look, and they are proving so much easier to keep neat and tidy – our neighbours even complimented them calling them “jolie”, so we really have done a good job at building a cheap potager in France. Perhaps it goes to show that the third time really is the charm!
The cost of this project will vary depending upon how many beds which you need to make, but we managed to construct these five at a cost of around 200€. This is a huge saving on the estimate for sleepers and I’m very happy with the result – perhaps even more now that these beds are imbued with a sense of pride at a job well done!